Dominion Leans on Landowners to Survey for Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Dominion Transmission, Duke Energy and other partners are trying to nail down the route of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline to transport fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. Many landowners have refused to let Dominion onto their land to survey for the pipeline. Sometimes, surveyors have even been caught trespassing without permission. Now, Dominion is playing hardball and taking landowners who won’t cooperate to court to get access to their land:

Dominion Resources is suing more than 40 landowners in Virginia who won’t allow the energy company to survey their properties for a proposed $5 billion natural gas pipeline.

Dominion filed lawsuits earlier this week in circuit courts against 20 property owners in Nelson County and 27 in Augusta County. That number is expected to double, the company said.

Dominion spokesman Jim Norvelle said Virginia law allows the company to enter the properties to conduct the surveys. He said the surveys are needed to avoid future problems, such as family cemeteries.

Dominion sent a final letter to the landowners in November asking for permission before making the decision to move forward in the courts.

“We notified them that if they did not grant us permission, we would file legal actions and ask the court to affirm the law,” he said. “We are now at the stage with these landowners.”

If the court orders access, Augusta County resident Travis Geary told The News-Virginian that his family will abide by the decision. But Geary said they will continue to oppose the project.

“I think this was designed to scare people into submission,” Geary said of the legal filings. “Some landowners are understandably fearful of what the consequences would be if they didn’t allow Dominion on the property.”

More lawsuits claiming eminent domain seem likely to follow:

One hundred and seventy-eight Virginians will be getting not-so-merry Christmas presents from the electric utility Dominion Resources soon – official notifications that lawsuits have been filed against them that Dominion demands access to their land so it can survey for a $5 billion natural gas pipeline.

According to the Waynesboro News Virginian, Dominion sued 20 Nelson County property owners and 27 more in Augusta County earlier this week. The rest may be sued in the near future and they will have three weeks to respond. […]

Dominion’s spokesmen say they have the right to cross private property to survey land for a possible pipeline route if they have asked for permission and have not received it. Not so, say some people I spoke with in Nelson County. Anne Buteau who runs an organic farm there told me that the law does not explicitly give Dominion the right to trespass on their land if they say no as many have. It just says that Dominion can ask and if they get no response, then they can move in, she says.

This will obviously be a legal issue to resolve as the cases move into the court. And, this is all pretty new stuff to Virginians who much haven’t had to contend with big energy firms encroaching on their land.

In November, according to the Raleigh News & Observer, Dominion Energy sent letters to 226 land owners in North Carolina, 189 in Virginia and five in West Virginia, who have refused to allow the company to survey their land for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline route.

The Richmond, Va.-based company said the letters are a final attempt to get the land owners to cooperate before Dominion seeks court orders to gain entry onto the properties to conduct survey work.

Some legal experts say that Dominion can’t yet claim eminent domain:

Attorney Joe Lovett with Appalachian Mountain Advocates says pipelines can only claim eminent domain, and the right to survey without permission, when they prove their projects serve a genuine public need. He says the pipeline companies in question haven’t done that. […]

More importantly, Lovett says, the pipeline companies’ threat to litigate might be a bluff. He says if a pipeline is coming through your land, get an attorney.

Opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline comes not just from environmentalists and landowners who are in the pipeline’s path:

Parents and county leaders [in Augusta County, Virginia] are expressing concern over plans that show the pipeline within a half-mile of three different schools – Stuarts Draft Elementary, Middle and High Schools. County supervisors say there is not much they can do about it.

“If we have to evacuate those schools, it’s not going to happen quickly and it would be really a production,” said supervisor David Karaffa. “I just think it’s an unnecessary danger.”

University of Virginia students in Charlottesville have also come out against the pipeline:

The problem is that this pipeline will bring significantly more harm than benefit to Virginia communities. According to a map produced by Dominion, the pipeline will cross through unstable karst topography, which is prone to sinkholes. This significantly increases the likelihood of the pipeline collapsing which would lead to the release of dangerous chemicals into the groundwater and explosive vapors ending up in homes, schools and business….

On a broader scale, the installation of natural gas infrastructure locks Virginia into an energy reliance that has no place in our future energy economy. The construction of the ACP removes incentive for the necessary development and investment in renewable energy in the state.

Conservatives and libertarians are often pro-fossil fuels and fail to see renewable energy alternatives like solar. But they also don’t take kindly to eminent domain. This tactic may backfire on Dominion.

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